Cycling through the Cairngorms towards Dalwhinnie

My LEJOG blog

Day 21 - South Queensferry to Perth

Thurs July 14th 2016

Distance: 34.9 miles
Altitude climbed: 481m

I woke this morning to a day which, contrary to the rain that was forecast, was a bright blue sky with gorgeous sunshine. The Forth Road Bridge crossing was promising to be a pretty spectacular affair!

I'd spent a lot of last night poring over satellite images and Google Street View of the area, as it wasn't too clear at first where cyclists went after crossing the bridge - the road over the bridge was busy and I didn't want to have to rejoin that carriageway. I needn't have worried though, as I found out the cycle path remains separate until it turns off where I joined some quiet roads.

The main decision then was which side of the bridge to cycle on! I was tempted by the western side so that I could look out to the new Forth road bridge and see the progress on building this, but instead opted for the western edge since this had views of the iconic Forth rail bridge, and also meant that I was already on the correct side of the road for when I peeled off onto quieter country roads.

Crossing the Forth Road Bridge by bike

Crossing the Forth Road Bridge.

Crossing the bridge itself was easy - there's a very wide (shared) cycle and pedestrian path that's completely separated from the main carriageway (although you could still really feel the bridge bounce when a heavy truck drove past!). I probably took a lot longer than I should have done to cross the bridge, mainly because I just kept stopping to take photos, but it was such a great view that I could have spent the full day there had I had the time. I was so lucky with the weather!

After the bridge I stayed on the path that ran alongside the A90 and followed it down a slip road onto a quiet local road towards the village of Inverkeithing. There I nearly ran straight into 2 boys who were glued to their mobile phones and walked into the road without looking - I'm sure it's not an unreasonable guess to assume they were playing the new Pokemon Go game that seems to have gone crazy in the last few days?!

The spectacular Forth Bridge

The Forth Bridge in all its glory.

The rest of today was fairly straightforward, spent mainly on little B roads with quite a few ups and downs. At one point I even passed a couple of touring cyclists who were carrying a full spare wheel on their pannier! I've never seen that before but could have done with a spare wheel back near Bristol when my spokes broke!

After a quick day and not too far out from Perth (and just after an amazing long downhill stretch) I stopped for a brief drink by the side of the road, however as I set off again my chain suddenly snapped. Arse! A snapped chain is even less useful than a snapped pedal - at least then I still had one pedal and another crank that I could use to get power to the wheels, even if it was a bit awkward to do so. Without a chain I'm completely stuck!

Fortunately it was great weather still; stopping to fix the bike wouldn't have been at all pleasant in the rain. As I was on a narrow country lane with no verge either side I walked back 100 metres or so to the nearest house and "borrowed" their driveway to make the repairs on. I had a chain tool and spare links with me but quickly realised that the break was on the master links which had simply come unjoined - I'm not sure how that happened as it'd require compression to undo them, whereas the chain is only ever in tension? Odd. At least it was a simple fix to make, just snapping them back together by (now very oily) hand. I did a quick check of the rest of the chain and the gears & luckily didn't find any other issues.

And then it was a short ride into Perth. As it had been a quick day I had a bit of spare time in the evening to do the final bit of planning for the next few days up to John o'Groats. Unfortunately though I found a shortage of available accommodation between Inverness and John o'Groats (this was always going to be a risk by not booking further in advance), so after some re-jigging of daily plans I ended up stretching 3 days across 4 to make it work. It's a relief to now have everything booked! It also means I'll finish on the Friday, thus not leaving enough time to get back to Leeds for my friend's BBQ the next day as I'd hoped. Gutted!

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 22 - Perth to Pitlochry

Fri July 15th 2016

Distance: 28.8 miles
Altitude climbed: 470m

Wow, this was one wet day! It was such a contrast to yesterday's sunshine; I'm glad it wasn't like this for the Forth Road Bridge crossing - the views would have been ruined!

Soaking wet alongside the A9!

Soaking wet alongside the A9! I was wishing I'd been in the dry and warmth of one of the cars 😕

This was also the first day that I put my waterproof shoe covers on. Despite having waterproof shoes I didn't trust them to keep out today's torrent of rain so thought some extra protection would help. Yeah, that kind of backfired....!

I don't quite know how (the overshoes were a tight fit on the ankles so water shouldn't have gotten in there) but they seemed to make the situation worse; by the end of the day my trainers felt like there was a full pond inside them. I wouldn't have been surprised to have found tadpoles in there when I took them off!

Crossing the bridge into Dunkeld

Crossing the bridge into Dunkeld

The terrain today was as varied as it's been the whole trip, with quiet roads through villages, some sections on a cycle path alongside the A9, plenty of quiet country roads through woodland, and even a nerve-wracking half mile along the A9. I'd really rather have preferred to avoid the A9, as I've successfully done so far, but the alternative was to add a 2.5 mile diversion on. That doesn't sound too much, but in this rain it'd have felt like an eternity! I put all my lights on full beam, waited (for ages!) for a relatively quiet break in the traffic, and just went for it. It wasn't pleasant - and I should have taken the diversion instead - but was over within a minute or two and without incident.

A lot of today's route on country roads was quite high up, which on any other day would have given me some great scenery, but with today's rain sadly all I could see was grey clouds.

There was one hairy moment of the day as well, coming not too far from Pitlochry. I was cycling perhaps slightly too fast along a decent quality cyclepath when suddenly - and at the bottom of a dip - I came across a very muddy stretch that was maybe 4-5 metres long. I entered the mud a bit too fast and immediately found myself battling hard with the bike to stay upright; the wheels were desperately wanting to slide out from under me. Fortunately I stayed in control and made it out of the mud with my heart beating somewhat faster, and didn't end up as a muddy mess on the floor! Phew.

The hotel I'm in in Pitlochry tonight (the Arcsaid) is really nice. The bedroom might be a bit ordinary but the downstairs area is great, as are the staff. I felt more than a little guilty when checking in as I made quite a puddle on the floor as the rain dripped off me (despite shaking myself down like a dog outside) - the poor receptionist even kindly ran to grab me a towel!

Luckily I've had a couple of spare hours to wash my clothes and put things out to dry before my friend Emma arrived, having driven up from Leeds after work to join me for a days cycling tomorrow. The steak restaurant in the hotel is amazing too - and was much appreciated after a wet days riding!!

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 23 - Pitlochry to Newtonmore

Sat July 16th 2016

Distance: 43.6 miles
Altitude climbed: 630m

This was a great day and definitely one of my favourites of the trip, cycling up and over the Cairngorms and with spectacular scenery. My friend Emma had come for the day which made it even more fun, fortuitously choosing one of the most scenic days of the trip so far to join me.

River near Blair Atholl

The day started out sunny at least

Before setting off I'd been a little nervous about today's route as I'd not been able to find any authoritative information about the quality of the cycle track over the Cairngorms. I'd found some several-years-old internet forums discussing the track as being muddy in places, but also with talk (back then) of a new track being built. With my narrow tyres I was hoping for a solid (preferably tarmacced!) surface throughout, and luckily it was. 🙂

We started out on quiet roads from Pitlochry to Blair Atholl, taking a very slight detour to admire the view of the river Garry from a bridge that was off to the side of our route. The sun was bright and with blue skies to start the day - gorgeous! Not long after Blair Atholl and the House of Bruir factory shop (where I was half tempted to call in and buy a kilt...) we crossed under the A9 and joined a service road with no cars. To my mind that's when the day truly started, the point when we started climbing up into the Cairngorms.

Drumochter Summit warning sign to cyclists

A warning sign for cyclists before starting the ascent to the summit.

Today we were to reach the highest point of my entire trip at the Drumochter Summit. I was a bit worried about the amount of climbing that would be needed but fortunately the route's elevation profile (as provided by Strava) was for an extremely gradual and consistent climb - the ascent was in fact so gradual, taking over 15 miles to slowly work its way up to the summit, that the climb was barely even noticeable! Burning calories and seeing stunning scenery without much noticeable effort, awesome 😉

Cycle path near the A9 over the Cairngorms

The route was traffic free for most of the day, often running parallel to the A9.

Before doing this trip many people had said that Cornwall was the hilliest part and I can see why now; the hills there might be lower in elevation but they're often much steeper and are a constant up and down. By contrast today was decidedly easy! The hard surface of the paths helped to make it more straightforward than expected too, and even though the surface was breaking up in places it was for the most part fairly smooth and easy cycling.

The views throughout the day were spectacular. Even though we were in sort of a valley throughout the climb and never had a long distance view down to sea level, just being amongst the hills was amazing - we were never far from the A9 or the train track but it still felt pretty remote. Even the drizzle when it came didn't detract from the day, and probably made it a bit better by making the scenery a little more moody looking.

Cycling over the Cairngorms

Cycling over the summit.

The downer for the day though (there's always at least one each day!) was that not long after starting the descent Emma had noticed that my rear wheel looked buckled. I'd been aware of a rubbing noise for a few miles but hadn't taken it too seriously at first. When I did stop I realised that my wheel was cracked on the rim in several places, especially around the spoke nipples, and as a result had become badly distorted. This bike is starting to annoy me!! It was obvious the wheel would need changing and probably wasn't safe to continue on it, although I gingerly rode it down to Newtonmore (I didn't fancy walking the remaining 10 miles!) and to the train station.

My cracked wheel rim

My wheel rim starting to crack.

The plan for the weekend had initially been for Emma to take a train from Newtonmore back to Pitlochry tomorrow morning (along with her bike) to pick up her car and drive home. Getting a bike on a train though is a pain as there's very few spaces available - the Virgin train we'd wanted to catch tomorrow has no more bike tickets available. So instead we decided that Emma would catch a local train this afternoon (without her bike) and drive straight back up to Newtonmore for the night. ScotRail had other ideas though!! ☹

As I only discovered yesterday ScotRail staff are on strike at the moment and so only a very limited service is running. Despite this, this morning their website was showing that the train we wanted today was still running, but after we'd been waiting at the platform for half an hour it became pretty clear that it wasn't! A train did pass through at the right time but without stopping - *******'s!

Scotland is a beautiful place but it's relative remoteness does make getting around without a car a bit tricky. Fortunately later on there was a bus running (one of just 2 a day) so Emma took that down to Pitlochry and drove back up - having now done the route between Pitlochry & Newtonmore 3 times today (once by bike, once by bus, and once by car!). She got back just in time for dinner at the hotel too, which wasn't a patch on last night's food and can probably only diplomatically be described as "bulk catering" (I think the clue was that all guests eat at exactly the same time and there's just 3 choices on the menu...).

And then after a long day of cycling, a long evening of drinking was needed to toast our achievements! The hotel bar certainly took a fair amount of money from us today 😎

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 24 - Newtonmore to Carrbridge

Sun July 17th 2016

Distance: 21.7 miles
Altitude climbed: 213m
Bike workshops visited: 1

My shortest riding day yet! As it turned out that was some pretty fortunate planning - the priorities today were to get my bike fixed and make sure Emma got off safely to Leeds before it got too late.

Google had come to the rescue again yesterday, showing us that the nearest open bike shop was 14 miles away in Aviemore and a quick phone call established that they luckily had a suitable wheel in stock. Phew! Having Emma's car here with a bike rack proved phenomenally useful as it meant we could make a quick drive (thanks Emma!) to Aviemore to get my wheel changed.

It took only about an hour to change the wheel over, allowing us to quickly pop for brunch in my favourite Aviemore cafe above an outdoors shop (I've been there a few times). Driving to Aviemore was a little odd though as it allowed me to see the route I'd be cycling later that day - fortunately there were no hills or anything else to make me dread the ride!

Welcome to Aviemore sign

Arriving into Aviemore.

Then after returning to Newtonmore and saying goodbye to Emma, it was a late start (1pm) for setting off to Carrbridge on a quick 2 hour cycle ride along quiet roads. An easy day!

What I wasn't too happy with though (I had said that each day has at least one downer....) was realising that my rear tyre has now started to split at the wall. When I left Newtonmore I noticed the ride wasn't quite as smooth as it should be, feeling as if my bike had a very slight bounce per wheel revolution as if the wheels weren't properly round. I soon spotted that the tyre wall was splitting slightly thus allowing the inner tube to bulge there. It was just the wheel rim that was replaced today and not the tyre, but I am still disappointed that the bike shop didn't spot the problem when swapping the tyre onto the new rim (although to be fair I have no idea whether it'd be reasonable for them to do so or not; it was the wheel that that was damaged and which they were looking at for me, and not the tyre).

My tyre wall starting to give way.

My tyre wall starting to give way.

Since my route took me back through Aviemore I again stopped at the bike shop but they didn't have any tyres in stock that were the right size so I just had to carry on. They advised though that whilst the tyre wall had started to go it was still safe to ride on as it's not too badly split just yet, and the owner of the B&B tonight (who it's turned out is an ex-bike shop owner!) repeated that same advice. Obviously I'll need to keep an eye on it and change it as soon as possible.

The B&B tonight isn't itself too remarkable (in fact the room decor is very dated, and despite being ensuite the washbasin is in the main bedroom, huh?) but the owners are great and they're currently doing an amazing conversion of an old church that's within their grounds into a house (in fact that's where I'm storing my bike overnight - I never expected to keep it in a church when I set off on this trip!). It's an impressive job and very "Grand Designs"-esque. I'd love to return one day and see the finished thing!

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 25 - Carrbridge to Inverness

Mon July 18th 2016

Distance: 28 miles
Altitude climbed: 341m
Bike workshops visited: 1

Today was a little nervewracking when riding knowing that my tyre has started to fail. Even though two separate bike mechanics have said that there's life in the tyre yet (they've apparently seen tyres in far worse condition than mine) I was still nervous about having a sudden blowout, given the weight (ie me & my gear!) that I was putting onto it. I rode carefully all day because of this, making sure I didn't hit any sudden bumps or potholes at any speed. Before setting off too I phoned ahead to a bike shop in Inverness to check they had my exact tyre in stock and let them know I was coming, and re-routed my Garmin map to their location (which was exactly on my route already anyway as it happened).

Slochd summit sign

Passing the Slochd summit, on the way out of Carrbridge.

Fortunately however the day was drama free and without any more mechanical issues, and I was able to enjoy the sunshine as I headed out of Carrbridge and up the 150m(ish) of climbing to the Slochd Summit. I knew that after just 10km I'd be at the summit from where it'd largely be downhill or flat, with the exception of one section, but even having that to look forward to didn't make the climbing any easier. It wasn't that steep but I just found today that I've been lacking much energy for some reason. I just had to put my bike into a low gear, grit my teeth, and rotate those pedals!

Once again the roads were quiet country ones, never too far from the A9 for the first 20 miles or so, and often heading through the woods. There was one point I could see on my map that I was passing a lake but the trees were just too dense to see anything - disappointing.

Cycleway near the A9 Cycleway near the A9

I love dedicated traffic-free cycleways like these!

Just 7 or 8 miles out of Inverness and there was a final 100m climb to do. This felt tougher to do than usual because I'd just lost nearly 300m of altitude over the previous 15miles - it seemed such a waste of energy to be going back up! If only the road from the summit to Inverness could have been a nice continuous straight descent on which I could have freewheeled down for the whole way, and not some up and down rollercoaster (ok that might be exaggerating it just a little...) instead! Normally 100m of climb wouldn't have been an issue but today was a struggle, so I was mighty glad when that was finally finished with. From there it truly was then a downhill all the way to Inverness.

On the outskirts of Inverness there were some busy roads I had to join but nothing too bad. I also experienced one of my pet peeves that I've encountered a few times so far - the case of the mysteriously vanishing cycle lane (these should even be up there with the Mary Celeste as one of the universe's greatest mysteries). These cycle lanes are generally dedicated cycle tracks that are well signposted to start with, then they merge onto a shared footpath/cyclepath, and then after a while you stop seeing any signs at all whilst the path narrows to a width barely usable even by pedestrians. Is it still a shared path? Is it now just a pedestrian footpath and I'm cycling illegally? Was I meant to join the road at some unknown point that wasn't marked? Who knows. City planners, if you're reading this, please make sure all the cycle lanes in your city have well defined start & end points! Thankyou 🙂

Descending into Inverness

Descending into Inverness.

Just on the edge of Inverness city centre I found my destination for changing my tyre, the Velocity Cafe & Bicycle Workshop. This is an unusual venture in that there's no normal bike shop there but instead a combination of bike workshop and cafe. Reading their history it seems that they started out doing bike maintenance lessons in the park (I could have done with some of those!) before finding premises and opening a cafe a short time later. It's a great place, and they make a mean cup of coffee too. Changing my tyre over was a quick job - finishing my sandwich & coffee took a little longer. Why rush things when you're relaxing? 😎

Back on the road then and I quickly found myself in Inverness centre and my hotel. And once again it was another great evening; this time I met up with a couple of friends & their daughter who were on holiday in Inverness from London. I'd met with Nick a few weeks previously and mentioned my possible plans, and we twigged then that we were both going to be Inverness at the same time. Superb timing! I rarely get to see Nick and his wife as we live far apart, and I'd never met their daughter before either, so it was great catching up with them over a good Italian meal (and wine of course!).

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 26 - Inverness to Invergordon

Tues July 19th 2016

Distance: 28.9 miles
Altitude climbed: 407m
In the centre of Inverness

In the centre of Inverness

El scorchio! This was a beautiful day - the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and my factor 50 suncream was liberally applied. Today was the start of the end; Inverness is the last big town that I'll see on this trip - the next time I'm back in civilisation will be after I've finished the whole adventure in just 4 days time. Gulp! It's starting to seem very very real.

The start of the journey today couldn't have been any more beautiful either; just like when I crossed the Forth Road Bridge out of Edinburgh, the gorgeous weather today made the views off the Kessock Bridge from Inverness just simply spectacular. I adore Leeds (where I live) but I would love one day to live further out in the countryside such as here and have views like this.

The view of Inverness looking back from Kessock Bridge

The view of Inverness looking back from Kessock Bridge

As I crossed the bridge (rather slowly again, stopping constantly for photos!) I noticed 4 cyclists up ahead who were all loaded up with panniers. Inverness is where the 2 main LEJOG routes through Scotland merge (from Edinburgh over the Cairngorms as I've done, and from Glasgow via Fort William and Loch Ness). I wouldn't be surprised therefore to meet more LEJOGers on the roads here, as there's not that many different routes that can be taken anymore.

When I caught up with these 4 cyclists though (two of whom were on a tandem with the smallest wheels I've ever seen!) it transpired that they were on a tour of the Cairngorms. They're a group of friends who take a cycling holiday every year around different parts of the UK; some of their previous adventures sounded amazing!

A field that looked just like the Windows XP wallpaper

As I passed this view near Alness it reminded me of the default Windows XP wallpaper!

The only other time I've been this far north before was a visit to Inverness 5 years ago when I did a day trip up to John o'Groats (forgetting to take my wallet with me that day - fortunately I had plenty of petrol to get me back again!). I remembered from that drive that there are a few bridges to cross out of Inverness, however instead of crossing the Cromarty Bridge today my route instead took me west and round the edge of the Cromarty Firth and through Dryburgh. This only added a mile or two onto the journey but meant I could avoid travelling on the A9 - despite being north of Inverness it's still looking pretty busy!

And once again today I've had more problems with my bike..... I've had enough trouble with this bloody bike to last me a lifetime!! Just as I was passing through Dryburgh I noticed my rear wheel starting to make funny noises, so pulled over to check (once again!) that none of the spokes were broken (they weren't) or that the rim wasn't cracked (it wasn't), but noticed instead that several of the spokes had pretty much come unscrewed and which were causing the wheel to deform. WTF? I learnt back in Gloucester that it's better for spokes to not be too tightly done up so that they'll have a bit of give in them, but these were so loose that they were almost right out of the nipples.

I could see on Google that there was a bike shop nearby in Dryburgh (the last one before Wick), however as I was at the top of a steep hill - one that I didn't fancy cycling down and back up again - and as tightening spokes and trueing a wheel can be a long job that I didn't have time to wait for a bike shop to do, then I decided to attempt to sort it myself (yes I know these are feeble reasons but I'm fed up of visiting bike shops by now!!).

So for the next hour, and with my bike upside down on some stranger's driveway, I proceeded to tighten all my spokes myself and true the wheel up. Doing this with an adjustable wrench is not an easy task and I'm sure a dedicated nipple tool would have halved the time it took. I was pretty impressed with the job I did however - my first wheel trueing and it was a good'un! Go me 😉

Cycleway near the A9

Lots of dedicated cycle track today, although it did keep changing which side of the road it was on which slowed me down somewhat.

The rest of the journey today was straightforward, largely on quiet roads running parallel to the busy A9. Even though the roads were quiet there was still one section where a dedicated cycle track had been built off to the side of the road and through the woods. The track itself was great, nice and freeflowing with a few bends and tiny up-and-downs to keep the interest, however what was annoying was that it kept changing which side of the road it was on every 200m or so, which meant I had to keep stopping to cross the road. Eventually I gave up and just stuck to the road - a shame really!

The Kincraig Castle Hotel

The Kincraig Castle Hotel

My hotel tonight is the Kincraig Castle Hotel. It was the only available hotel in the area and I when booking it I'd wondered whether I might be a bit scruffy for it (I forgot to pack my tuxedo...) but fortunately it turned out that I was fine. To get to it meant rejoining the A9 for a few hundred metres however this didn't prove too to be too much of a problem and the road was quite quiet at the time. As I arrived there was a couple of well dressed ladies having afternoon tea in the sunny garden outside - I wasn't quite sure what they thought of a sweaty and scruffy cyclist turning up alongside them, I felt decidedly underdressed and self-conscious! I relaxed a bit though when I got chatting to one of the chefs who was just about to cycle home (causing me to really look forward to the dinner tonight with his descriptions of the menu!) and when I met the owner too who showed me to the bike store.

Another issue I'd noticed this afternoon is that my rear brake has been steadily losing it's stopping power. It felt a bit weak in the morning and has been getting worse all day, and tightening the brake cables up doesn't seem to have been having much effect either. At the hotel I took a look at the bike but I've not been able to see anything wrong - the brake pads don't look too worn - so I wonder whether they've somehow gotten any grease or oil on the pads, maybe accidentally at the bike shop yesterday? Fingers crossed that will wear off with more riding.

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 27 - Invergordon to Brora

Weds July 20th 2016

Distance: 34.3 miles
Altitude climbed: 412m

Well, if yesterday was El Scorchio then today was very much El Soakio. Overnight we had some amazing thunderstorms; I fortunately slept through most of them (although I saw images on the TV breakfast news) but I did wake a couple of times when it was particularly bad. Fortunately it was dry by the morning but the forecast was that this was just a temporary respite and more torrential rain was on its way. And boy was the forecast correct!

Scotland in the rain!

Scotland is still gorgeous even in the rain!

I set off as soon as I could so I'd finish as early as possible, although the rain soon started. Cycling in heavy rain for several hours, and with thunder & lightning, is not pleasant! The scenery today I'm sure should have been stunning, being on the coast for much of it, however the fog & rain clouds meant I couldn't see very much at all.

At Tain I gave serious thought to packing it in for the day and finding a hotel just to get out of the rain, but eventually decided I needed to plough on if I was to make it to John o'Groats on schedule.

Up to Tain I spent most of the morning on quiet country lanes again, but after Tain there's not much choice but to start riding on the A9. Fortunately it's about this point though that the traffic volume eases off and it becomes just a regular (if occasionally busy) main road. Most drivers pass with care although there is still the occasional boy-racer idiot that passes too close.

Dornoch Bridge

Cycling across the Dornoch Firth Bridge in a thunderstorm is not much fun - you're pretty exposed out there (image from Google Street View)

The worst, yet also the most memorable, part of the day was cycling across the Dornoch Bridge. This low lying bridge crosses the Dornoch Firth, exposing you to the worst of the elements as you do so. I was glad it wasn't particularly windy today but even so crossing the bridge in a thunder and lightning storm was not at all pleasant & I felt pretty very vulnerable!! I'm not sure of the physics of it and how likely I was to have been hit by any lightning (hopefully my rubber tyres would have meant that I wasn't an attractive target for lightening?) but on reflection it would probably have been a more sensible idea to have stopped at Tain after all!

Scotland in the rain

A brief gap in the rain....

After only about 3.5 hours though, and mainly because I just kept cycling today and barely stopping, I made it to my hotel in Brora (once again making a puddle in the reception area as I checked in!). It was certainly a memorable day.

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 28 - Brora to Lybster

Thurs July 21st 2016

Distance: 35.8 miles
Altitude climbed: 750m

So, it's my penultimate day! And after yesterday's horrendous weather I was relieved this morning to find that it was another clear and sunny day again, phew 😎. Today though was about hills - lots of them! And that's not good when you're down to just your front brake.

I was disappointed yesterday that my rear one hadn't got any better, and was in fact now completely useless. It's obvious now that it's not just a case of grease having gotten onto the rotor or pads but I just can't work out what's wrong - the brake pads still look to be healthy. And for once Google fails to help me with any ideas too ☹

The coastline of north-east Scotland

The coastline of north-east Scotland

The A9 (and subsequently the A99) takes a beautiful path along the coast but boy does it go up and down a lot! The start of the day wasn't too bad but just past Helmsdale was a long 200m climb that never seemed to end, whilst the infamous Berriedale Pass (a switchback road up a very steep cove) was particularly brutal gaining 100m height in about 1km. Ouch! I was extremely fortunate with my timing going up the far side of the Berriedale Pass and had no cars behind me, allowing me 5 minutes with the road all to myself where I could wheeze up the worst of it without any distractions. Appropriately enough you pass by a cemetery on the way up; luckily I had no need for that today!

A roadsign saying I'm not far from John o'Groats!

Not far from John o'Groats now!

Climbing up the steep hills was bad enough, but today I couldn't enjoy the descents either because of my (lack of) rear brake. Coming down into the Berriedale Pass I took it very slowly and had my front brake almost on full, yet started to gain speed a little so had to really squeeze the to come to a controlled stop (with a little help from my feet - I almost considered using the run-off section that's there for out of control lorries!). I walked down the very last bit of it as I didn't feel safe, and walked down the full way into Dunbeath too. This is not good. At least there's only 10 or so miles to do tomorrow to get to the next bike shop.... and then another 20 to John o'Groats! Whoop!

A deer statue in the grounds of my bed and breakfast

A statue in the grounds of my B&B

My B&B this evening was a bit of a challenge to find and wasn't where I'd expected it to be. I'd arranged it by phone and it was all very casual (I later realised that we didn't even discuss a price - I'm hoping there's no dispute when I check out tomorrow over the figure that Booking.com was quoting!) without any booking confirmation being emailed. I obviously hadn't noted the address down correctly either and had programmed my GPS to take me to the centre of Lybster where I thought it was.

After cycling up and down the high street (the only street!) in Lybster several times though I couldn't find it at all. It turns out that it isn't in Lybster - it's in Occumster over a mile away. How did I get that wrong?! And whilst Lybster is small, Occumster pretty much consists of just my B&B and nothing else - there's no bar or restaurant for an evening meal. I stocked up on sandwich ingredients from the minimart in Lybster and headed over.

Even though it meant there are no nearby restaurants, the great thing about my B&B being all by itself is the uninterrupted views - they were just stunning! The warm sunset tonight made it even better, with the sun slowly setting behind the cliffs in the distance and casting an amazing light over the sea and all the fields as it went. Spectacular.

The view from my Occumster in the late evening

The view from my B&B in the late evening

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Day 29 - Lybster to John o'Groats

Fri July 22nd 2016

Distance: 29.4 miles
Altitude climbed: 293m

The end is in sight (well, not quite literally just yet!). The last few weeks on the road - whether in rain or shine, with a headwind or in the calm - have all come down to today. I wasn't quite sure how I'd feel at the end - joy at having accomplished such a trip, sadness that it's over, relief at being able to finally have a rest, or maybe just a mixture? But first I needed to make sure that I actually made it to the end!

It was a simple route today, flatter and slightly shorter than yesterday, with one big motivation (the finish line!) to keep me pedalling. The first 12 miles into Wick were remarkably quick; very smooth roads with an overall slight descent. In fact I made it so fast that I was in danger of getting to John o'Groats far too early before my friend Rox (who grew up in Wick & is up here visiting her parents at the moment) would be able to get out to John o'Groats as planned!

In Wick I soon discovered that the bike shop there sadly doesn't stock any disc brake pads (in fact the bike shop is a mixture of a toy shop & bike shop, all adjoining a bakers...very strange!), forcing me to take it gently to John o'Groats with only my front brake still giving me any stopping power. I was so close though that that didn't really bother me, and the worst of the hills were behind me anyway.

Arriving into John o'Groats

Arriving into John o'Groats

After a coffee to kill a bit of time I slowly headed out of Wick. Not long afterwards though I noticed a van parked in a layby ahead of me with the driver trying to flag me down - odd?! I pulled over, puzzled by why he was trying to get my attention, only to discover it was Keith who I'd met cycling (with his wife) on Day 4 down in Bodmin! It's a small small world!! 🙂

Keith had been in the area with work and had recognised me & my bike as he drove past (we'd had quite a discussion of bikes back in Bodmin) so stopped to say hi and see how I'd got on. It was a shock to meet him again but really great, & in a way helped to round out the whole trip by seeing someone again that I'd met so early on. Keith has cycled Lands End to John o'Groats a couple of times and so we were able to swap a few stories.

After that happy interlude it was then onwards to John o'Groats. Turning right off the A99 is a small road that takes you the final 14 miles, although it can be fairly busy with tourists constantly driving backwards and forwards. It's a fairly gentle road but with a very slight kick (100m gradual climb) near the end - my last hill of the whole trip! My friend Rox drove past me with her parents whilst I was on this climb, tooting the horn and giving me a bit of a shock as they went past - at least I knew they were ahead of me now 🙂

At the summit the view opened up and John o'Groats came into view. It was a bit surreal really - weeks and weeks of cycling and the destination was finally in sight! A long descent into John o'Groats, down to the harbour where the famous sign is, and it was over. It was finally over.

----- I've cycled Lands End to John o'Groats!! -----

At the famous John o'Groats sign!


It was weird at the end really. After wondering how it'd feel, I actually didn't feel all that much! It didn't seem real somehow; the cycling just came to a sudden stop and it was as if I was just having another break similar to the hundreds of other ones I'd had over the last 5 weeks.

John o'Groats harbour John o'Groats ferry John o'Groats hotel

John o'Groats

I'm sure it'll take a few days to really sink in - the long journey home past all the points I've come by will no doubt make me realise quite how far I've cycled and what I've achieved. It was great meeting Rox and her parents there as well - it certainly made it more special to have a friend greet me there, and to go for dinner with later, instead of just finishing alone.

Posing by the End to End sign

Posing again, this time by the End-to-Enders sign

All day since leaving my B&B I hadn't passed - or even seen - any other touring cyclists, yet I found there were several other end-to-enders at the finish point already. Talking to them it seems most had come along the north coast from Thurso, having turned to follow the A9 north at Latheron rather travelling up the A99 coastal route that I'd done. I'm not sure of the benefit of doing that route since it's longer and doesn't save any hills but it certainly seemed to be the most popular way today.

The last time I'd been in John o'Groats, about 6 years ago, I'd also seen a few cyclists who looked to have just finished LEJOG and who were having their photos taken at the famous sign. This time I've earnt my photo there too - I could raise a smile knowing that I've done the same and proudly feel part of the club.

I've made it. 😎

Map from Strava

Click map to view detailed route on Strava.com

Looking towards Orkney

I can cycle no further.... it's just water now between me and the Orkneys!